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Reestablishing the Balance Between Synthesis and Analysis

Science, as an activity, requires a balance between two quite dissimilar activities. One is analysis – the ability to break down a problem into its component parts and understand how they function. The second is synthesis – the ability to put the pieces back together in a creative way in order to solve problems. In most of our current university research and education, these capabilities are not developed in a balanced, integrated way. For example, both natural and social science research and education focuses almost exclusively on analysis, while the arts and engineering focus on synthesis. But, as mentioned above, analysis and synthesis, reductionism and wholism, are as inseparable as breathing out and breathing in. It is no wonder that our current approach to science is so dysfunctional. We have been holding our breath for a long time!

In the future, the need for a healthy balance between analysis and synthesis will be recognized at all levels of science education and research. One can already see the beginnings of this development. For example, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS – was established in response to the recognition in the ecological community that the activity of synthesis was both essential and vastly under-supported. Ecologists recognized that they could only obtain funding and professional recognition for collecting new data. They never had the time, resources, or professional incentives to figure out what their data meant, or how it could be effectively used to build a broader understanding of ecosystems or to manage human interactions with them more effectively. The response to NCEAS so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and I expect that synthesis, as a necessary component of the scientific process, will eventually receive its fair share of resources and rewards. Funding for synthesis activities will become available from the major government science funding agencies on an equal footing with analysis activities. For example, NSF has recently established the National Socio-Environmental SYNthesis Center (SESYNC – sesync. org/) aimed at broadening synthesis activity to better encompass the social sciences and humanities.

In the universities, the curriculum will be restructured to achieve a better balance between synthesis and analysis. More courses will be “problem-based,” workshops aimed at collaboratively addressing real problems via creative synthesis. Research has conclusively shown that “problem-based” curricula are very effective not only at supporting synthesis, but also at developing better analytical skills, since students are much more motivated to learn analytical tools if they have a specific problem to solve (Grigg 1995; Scott and Oulton 1999; Wheeler and Lewis 1997). There are already a few entire universities structured around the model of problem-based learning, including Maastricht University in the Netherlands and the University of Aalborg in Denmark. In addition, the capabilities of current and developing electronic communication technology will be more effectively employed in university education in the future. The market will soon be flooded with courses delivered over the Internet, but with little coordination among them and little recognition of the importance of integrating synthesis and communication into the educational process. The university of the future will take full advantage of the Internet, but it will also take much better advantage of the local face-to-face interactions on campus. Analysis courses are most amenable to delivery over the web. They could therefore afford to use the best faculty from around the world to produce them and could be continuously updated and improved. Grading would be internalized in the course, but testing would be proctored by the local host universities. This use of the Internet to provide most basic “tools” courses would free faculty to participate in synthesis courses, rather than repeating the same basic tools courses over and over at all campuses. Synthesis courses would be face-to-face “problem-based” studio or workshop courses focused on interactively solving real, current problems in the field (using the tools from the analysis courses or developing new tools in the process). These courses would be offered at local campuses or at the location of the problem itself, with quality control via the requirement for peer review of the results. Grading would be part of the peer review process and therefore would be performed external to the courses themselves.

This restructuring of research funding and the universities will also break down the strict disciplinary divisions that now exist. In the future, disciplinary boundaries will be as porous as many state and national boundaries are today. Likewise, one's disciplinary background will be noted much as one's place of birth is noted today – an interesting fact about one's path through life, but not a central defining characteristic. By focusing on problems and synthesis (rather than tools) universities will reclaim their role in society as the font of knowledge and wisdom (rather than merely technical expertise).

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